University of Maryland Physics Education Research Group

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Learning How to Learn Science: Physics for Bioscience Majors

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Development of Learning Environments

In this project we are adapting existing research-based learning environments to emphasize meta-learning and epistemological development. The environments we are working on include:

Adapting Tutorials

To pursue our agenda of promoting student meta-learning in large-lecture introductory physics courses, we will be drawing on and adapting a existing approaches, beginning with ìtutorials.î In the tutorial environment [1] students work in groups of 3 or 4 on carefully designed worksheets where they make predictions and compare various lines of reasoning in order to build an understanding of basic concepts. TAs serve as ìfacilitatorsî rather than as lecturers.

Tutorials have been found effective in helping students develop strong conceptual understanding.  We will be adapting them to stress development of student meta-learning resources.  Our primary template for this adaptation is a tutorial-style laboratory developed by Andy Elby [2] for his class at Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia. Like the original tutorials, Elbyís guided students to confront particular conceptual difficulties with the material; unlike the originals, his explicitly called their attention to the refinement of their intuition toward precision and consistency.

Example:  Helping students think of learning physics as ìrefining raw intuitionî

A truck rams into a parked car, which has half the mass of the truck. Intuitively, which is larger during the collision:  the force exerted by the truck on the car, or the force exerted by the car on the truck?

Most students responded that the truck exerts a larger force on the car than the car exerts on the truck; this is a commonly recognized "misconception." Elby then asked:

Suppose the truck has mass 1000 kg and the car has mass 500 kg.  During the collision, suppose the truck loses 5 m/s of speed.  Keeping in mind that the car is half as heavy as the truck, how much speed does the car gain during the collision?  Visualize the situation, and trust your instincts.

This time, most students answered correctly.  Working through follow-up questions, they concluded that their ìinstinctsî agree with Newtonís 3rd law.  Elby identified studentsí correct answer  as reflecting their "raw intuition" that ìthe car reacts twice as much during the collision," and he led them to the idea that they could "refine" this raw intuition in one of two ways, as summarized by the accompanying graphic.  The figure below represents the contents of the whiteboard at the end of a  long class discussion about these issues.

We are developing and adapting other tutorials, each targeting both conceptual and metacognitive objectives.  Other existing strategies we are modifying for Physics 121-122 include group-problem solving methods, [3] to to engage students in the collaborative design of problem-solving strategies (and not just problem solutions); interactive lecture demonstrations [4], to focus on the role of evidence and consistency in the formation of scientific understanding; as well as greater emphasis on ìreal worldî problems. [5]

How to Learn Physics
A secondary context for the research in this project is ìHow to Learn Physics,î a course one of us (DH) has been teaching in several guises since 1994. As an elective, off-track course designed and advertised "for people who might be interested in physics but are a little mystified or intimidated, maybe discouraged from past experience," HTLP has no mandated curriculum.  This allows it to be a relatively "pure" expression of our epistemological agenda, and we will take advantage of that here.  Thus the syllabus for the course takes epistemological development as the principal objective, with the overall goal that students come to understand and approach learning science as "the refinement of everyday thinking."  Of course, it is not possible to address this agenda without engaging in the refinement of everyday thinking, and HTLP includes what is traditionally understood as the "content" of a physics course, with the focus generally on Newtonian mechanics..

The main ìtopicsî of the course, however, address the nature of everyday knowledge, how to find it, work with it, and revise it.  Students develop an epistemological vocabulary, of ìhidden assumptions,î ìshopping for ideas,î ìreconciling inconsistencies,î ìconceptual footholds,î and ìcommitment.î  In these ways, we try to help students tap productive resources for thinking about knowledge and learning.  For example, to help students understand the notion of hidden assumptions, we appeal to familiar epistemological experience:

Imagine meeting someone who irritates you for some reason you canít put your finger on. So you think about it, trying to figure out what it is about him that bugs you.  When you realize itís because he looks a bit like a character youíve seen in a movie, you can relax. (In another instance, you may realize youíve met before and had an altercation, in which case the feeling of irritation is appropriate.) Often in physics, youíll have a sense that an object ought to move in a certain way, but youíll have trouble putting your finger on why you have that sense. If you can figure it out, you may realize youíre using an intuition that doesnít apply; or you may discover itís based on an experience thatís relevant and useful.

As we will for Physics 121-122, we have begun collecting video data and records of student work.  Because it is a small seminar course and little to constrain its curriculum, HTLP gives us more experimental freedom to try new ideas.  Some of the strategies developed in this course will make their way back into Physics 121-122.


[1] L. C. McDermott, P. S. Shaffer, and the Physics Education Group at the University of Washington, Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Prentice Hall, 1998).

[2] A. Elby, ìHelping physics students learn how to learn,î to be published in Phys. Ed. Res. Suppl. to the Am. J. Phys.(2001)

[3] P. Heller, R. Keith and S. Anderson, ìTeaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 1: Group versus individual problem solving,î Am. J. Phys. 60, 627-636 (1992); P. Heller and M. Hollabaugh, ìTeaching problem solving through cooperative grouping. Part 2: Designing problems and structuring groups,î Am. J. Phys. 60, 637-644 (1992).

[4] D. R. Sokoloff and R. K. Thornton, ìUsing interactive lecture demonstrations to create an active learning environment,î Phys.Teach. 35, 340-347 (1997).

[5] J. D. Bransford, A. L. Brown, and R. R. Cocking, Eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (National Academy Press, Washington DC, 1999).

Work supported in part by a grant from the US National Science Foundation. 

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Comments and questions may be directed to E. F. Redish
Last modified July 5, 2004